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Study: Stress at work as bad as secondhand smoke

Researchers said mental health is not always considered by workplace wellness programs but should be.
By Stephen Feller   |   Sept. 4, 2015 at 11:45 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Workplace stress can be as dangerous to health as secondhand smoke, according to a large review of studies by researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University.

The researchers noted that employers have created programs in recent years to address lifestyle and health choices of their employees. Neglecting stress levels, however, caused both by work and personal lives, can have just as poor an effect on health as secondhand smoke, not exercising or eating poorly.

"Wellness programs are great at doing what they're designed to do," Joel Goh, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, told the Boston Globe. "But they're targeting [employee behavior], not targeting the cause of stress. There are two sides of the equation and right now we focus on one side. We're trying to call attention to the other side [of the equation], which is the effect of managerial practices."

The researchers performed a meta-analysis on 228 studies that assessed the effects of 10 workplace stressors on employee physical and mental health, morbidity, and mortality. Included among the stressors were work-family conflict, job insecurity, high job demands, no health insurance, long work hours and low organizational control.

All of the studies included in the analysis had at least 1,000 participants, and 115 followed participants for longer periods of time, which researchers said lends further credence to their findings.

Researchers found job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by about 50 percent and long work hours increased mortality by nearly 20 percent. High job demands also increased the chances of morbidity, or having a physician-diagnosed illness, by 35 percent.

While previous studies have determined that secondhand smoke may have an effect on mood, the researchers equated the effects on health with the physiological effects of smoke on health -- finding they have statistically similar detrimental effects on health.

"We're not prescribing methodology to mitigate stress, but we're trying to open up conversation to say 'these things matter,'' Goh said. "Assuming an employer cares about their employee for benevolent or bottom line reasons, we think this is something many employers haven't thought on about."

The study is published in Behavioral Science and Policy.

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